Skip to main content

25 Weirdest Facts About the Solar System

11. Pluto has a bizarre atmosphere

NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto's observed atmosphere broke all the predictions. Scientists saw the haze extending as high as 1,000 miles (1,600 km), rising higher above the surface than the atmosphere on Earth. As data from New Horizons flowed in, scientists analyzed the haze and discovered some surprises there, too.

Scientists found about 20 layers in Pluto's atmosphere that are both cooler and more compact than expected. This affects calculations for how quickly Pluto loses its nitrogen-rich atmosphere to space. NASA's New Horizons team found that tons of nitrogen gas escape the dwarf planet by the hour, but somehow Pluto is able to constantly resupply that lost nitrogen. The dwarf planet is likely creating more of it through geological activity.

12. Rings are everywhere in the solar system

NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: R.G. French (Wellesley College), J. Cuzzi (NASA/Ames), L. Dones (SwRI), and J. Lissauer (NASA/Ames)

While we've known about Saturn's rings since telescopes were invented in the 1600s, it took spacecraft and more powerful telescopes built in the last 50 years to reveal more. We now know that every planet in the outer solar system – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – each have ring systems. That said, rings are very different from planet to planet. Saturn's spectacular rings, which may have come from a broken-up moon, are not repeated anywhere else.

Rings aren't limited to planets, either. In 2014, for example, astronomers discovered rings were discovered around the asteroid Chariklo. Why such a small body would have rings is a mystery, but one hypothesis is perhaps a broken-up moonlet created the fragments.

13. Jupiter's Great Red Spot is shrinking

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Along with being the solar system's largest planet, Jupiter also hosts the solar system's largest storm. Known as the Great Red Spot (since it's big and ruddy-colored), it's been observed in telescopes since the 1600s. Nobody knows exactly why the storm has been raging for centuries, but in recent decades another mystery emerged: the spot is getting smaller.

In 2014, the storm was only 10,250 miles (16,500 km) across, about half of what was measured historically. The shrinkage is being monitored in professional telescopes and also by amateurs, as telescope and computer technology allow high-powered photographs at an affordable cost. Amateurs are often able to make more consistent measurements of Jupiter, because viewing time on larger, professional telescopes is limited and often split between different objects. [Best Telescopes for the Money - 2017 Reviews and Guide]

14. Most comets are spotted with a sun-gazing telescope

ESA/NASA/SOHO/SDO/GSFC

Comets used to be the province of amateur astronomers, who spent night after night scouring the skies with telescopes. While some professional observatories also made discoveries while viewing comets, that really began to change with the launch of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) in 1995.

Since then, the spacecraft has found more than 2,400 comets, which is incredible considering its primary mission is to observe the sun. These comets are nicknamed "sungrazers" because they come so close to the sun. Many amateurs still participate in the search for comets by picking them out from raw SOHO images. One of SOHO's most famous observations came when it watched the breakup of the bright Comet ISON in 2013.

15. There may be a huge planet at the edge of the solar system

Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

In January 2015, California Institute of Technology astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown announced – based on mathematical calculations and on simulations – that there could be a giant planet lurking far beyond Neptune. Several teams are now on the search for this theoretical "Planet Nine," which could take decades to find (if it's actually out there.)

This large object, if it exists, could help explain the movements of some objects in the Kuiper Belt, an icy collection of objects beyond Neptune's orbit. Brown has already discovered several large objects in that area that in some cases rivaled or exceeded the size of Pluto. (His discoveries were one of the catalysts for changing Pluto's status from planet to dwarf planet in 2006.)

16. Neptune radiates more heat than it gets from the sun

NASA/JPL

Neptune is far away from Earth, and you can bet that scientists would love to get another spacecraft out there sometime soon. Perhaps today's technology could better answer some Neptunian mysteries, such as why the blue planet is giving off more heat than it receives. It's bizarre, considering that Neptune is so far away from the faint sun.

Scientists would love to know what's going on, because it's believed that the vast temperature differential could affect weather processes on the planet. NASA estimates the temperature difference between the heat source and the cloud tops is minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 160 degrees Celsius).

17. Jupiter has more heavy elements (proportionally) than the sun

NASA, ESA and A. Simon

The sun and the planets likely formed from the same cloud of hydrogen and helium gas. This would especially be true of Jupiter, a planet 317 times the size of Earth that pulled in a lot more gas than our own planet. So if that's the case, why does Jupiter have more heavy, rocky elements than the sun? [Jupiter's 7 Most Massive Mysteries]

One of the leading theories is that Jupiter's atmosphere is "enriched" by the comets, asteroids and other small rocky bodies that it pulls in with its strong gravitational field. Since amateur technology has improved, several small bodies have been seen falling into Jupiter in the past decade.

18. Earth's Van Allen belts are more bizarre than expected

NASA/Van Allen Probes/Goddard Space Flight Center

Earth has bands of radiation belts surrounding our planet, known as the Van Allen belts (named after the discoverer of this phenomenon.) While we've known about the belts since the dawn of the space age, the Van Allen Probes (launched in 2012) have provided our best-ever view of them. They've uncovered quite a few surprises along the way.

We now know that the belts expand and contract according to solar activity. Sometimes the belts are very distinct, and sometimes they swell into one massive belt. An extra radiation belt (beyond the known two) was spotted in 2013. Understanding these belts helps scientists make better predictions about space weather, or solar storms.

19. Uranus has a very battered moon

NASA

One of the most bizarre moons in the outer solar system is Miranda, which, unfortunately, we saw only once when Voyager 2 passed by it in 1986. This moon of Uranus has bizarre features on its surface, with sharp boundaries separating ridges, craters and other things. It is possible that the moon could have had tectonic activity, but how that happened on a body with a diameter of 500 km is a mystery.

Scientists aren't sure how the patchwork surface came about, and we likely won't be able to tell for sure until another mission gets out there. Perhaps the moon was smashed into bits and coalesced again, or maybe meteorites struck the surface and caused temporary melts in small areas.

20. Saturn has a two-tone moon

NASA

Saturn's moon Iapetus is a study in contrasts, with a very dark hemisphere and a very light hemisphere. It's unlike anything else in the solar system and has sparked speculation as to what is really going on.

Some scientists believe that particles from Phoebe (another, darker moon) may be falling on its surface. Others speculate that it's due to volcanic eruptions of hydrocarbons, which would create dark patches.

Cassini's flyby of Iapetus in 2007 also postulated a third theory, which is thermal segregation. Iapetus only rotates once every 79 days or so, stretching out the daily temperature cycle. This could force icy material to move into colder regions as the dark material heats up.

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.